Importance Of Managing Expectations On A Project In Trouble

Paul Naybour

My previous post was a bit of a rant about a project I was working on that was abandoned because senior management did not believe they could manage the expectations of the stakeholders and end-users if the scope of the project had to be reduced, which it had to be because the budget was no longer available. They felt that they would have to deal with endless complaints about a lack of features and functionality, without recognising that the core features would be present and the project would meet the basic business aims.
It made me think that of all the skills we talk about that are essential for an effective project manager we rarely focus on the ability to manage expectations effectively. Too often project managers view “managing expectations” as forcing an opinion or timescale on end-users (to be fair this might have been forced on them by senior management). Yet managing expectations comes down to that other PM staple – good communications.
If a project manager can openly and honestly explain to people (preferably face-to-face) why the decisions have been made to, for instance, reduce the scope (or whatever the issue is) then end-users will, more often than not, accept the situation. They may not like it but would understand why the decisions that were taken had to be made.
It is not knowing, understanding or appreciating why difficult decisions have to be made that causes problems.
Yet often discussions held at senior level never filter down through the ranks – end-users feel senior management do not understand their issues and vice-versa. That reminds me a bit of the situation with the recent EU referendum – the feeling that there were the politicians in their Westminster bubble who really did not understand a large swathe of the rest of the population. And, almost certainly a large swathe of the population who did not understand the complexities of government.
So why so often on projects do we limit the amount of information we communicate – the dreaded “need to know” basis we use to keep others in the dark. Candour would surely serve us better in a situation where there are compromises to be made that are bound to be unpopular. If senior execs and senior project staff help others to understand the difficult decisions that have to be made on many projects, communication and understanding of different perspectives would be improved.

Obviously setting out expectations at the start of the project is important so that everyone is on board with what will be delivered and when, but how can a project manager realistically manage expectations once the project has got into difficulties and timeframe, scope or budget have all changed? No amount of effective early planning can avoid having to reassess what the expectations should be on a problematic or potentially failing project.
All Stakeholders Must Understand the Arguments
Talk to all stakeholders – again a face-to-face conversation is preferable in a difficult situation as the written word is so easy to mis-interpret. You may not be in a position to change anything fundamental (a budget cut is a budget cut after all) but you can at least let all stakeholders and end-users express their opinion; feeling ignored and unheard will only build up resentment and dissatisfaction amongst the project team. Don’t forget that no-one ever wants a project to fail and everyone hopes to achieve some benefit from the final outcome. Your project won’t be the first or last that has to tighten it’s belt financially or cut back on the scope of what is delivered – these in themselves are not reasons for the project not to deliver a business benefit if handled properly.
So managing expectations when projects hit problems is, not surprisingly, about frank communication. Being open and honest is the best policy – I don’t know why people don’t do it more often…

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